Rational Security

The Illogic of Iraq

Explaining one of history's most egregious strategic non sequiturs.

Scott Nelson/Getty Images
Scott Nelson/Getty Images

Exactly 10 years ago the American invasion of Iraq commenced, launching one of military history's most egregious strategic non sequiturs. Not since Napoleon Bonaparte's ill-fated expedition to Egypt and Syria (1798-1801) -- from which he ultimately fled, losing an army and a fleet -- has the world seen a great power so humbled in the pursuit of illusory goals. Napoleon's dream was to use his incomparable army to spread French revolutionary and democratic ideals across a key portion of the Muslim world. But, as historian Lynn Montross once noted, "The masses were too fatalistic to be stirred by promises of a liberty they neither understood nor trusted."

The grand American goal in the Middle East, pursued some two centuries after Napoleon but with nearly the same idea in mind that had motivated him, foundered for similar reasons. The military occupation of Iraq, predictably, sparked a general uprising. But whereas Lord Nelson's great victory at Aboukir Bay forced an end to the French campaign, no such dramatic intervention drove American forces out. So they stayed, at a cost of over a trillion dollars, tens of thousands of soldiers' lives lost or shattered, and with the mounting Iraqi death toll rising well above 100,000. A debacle.

In some ways, the misadventure in Iraq can be seen as worse than Napoleon's blunder, in terms of the flawed logic that underpinned it. In addition to the idealistic American "democracy project," this was a war started to defang Saddam Hussein's budding nuclear arsenal. But U.N. inspectors had made clear beforehand that there simply were no such weapons in Iraq; invading forces overran the whole country and found none. Not anywhere in the country.

Exactly 10 years ago the American invasion of Iraq commenced, launching one of military history’s most egregious strategic non sequiturs. Not since Napoleon Bonaparte’s ill-fated expedition to Egypt and Syria (1798-1801) — from which he ultimately fled, losing an army and a fleet — has the world seen a great power so humbled in the pursuit of illusory goals. Napoleon’s dream was to use his incomparable army to spread French revolutionary and democratic ideals across a key portion of the Muslim world. But, as historian Lynn Montross once noted, "The masses were too fatalistic to be stirred by promises of a liberty they neither understood nor trusted."

The grand American goal in the Middle East, pursued some two centuries after Napoleon but with nearly the same idea in mind that had motivated him, foundered for similar reasons. The military occupation of Iraq, predictably, sparked a general uprising. But whereas Lord Nelson’s great victory at Aboukir Bay forced an end to the French campaign, no such dramatic intervention drove American forces out. So they stayed, at a cost of over a trillion dollars, tens of thousands of soldiers’ lives lost or shattered, and with the mounting Iraqi death toll rising well above 100,000. A debacle.

In some ways, the misadventure in Iraq can be seen as worse than Napoleon’s blunder, in terms of the flawed logic that underpinned it. In addition to the idealistic American "democracy project," this was a war started to defang Saddam Hussein’s budding nuclear arsenal. But U.N. inspectors had made clear beforehand that there simply were no such weapons in Iraq; invading forces overran the whole country and found none. Not anywhere in the country.

The other threat-based rationale for the war was the notion that there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. Again, this was a terrible logical fallacy; Saddam was one of the "apostates" targeted for overthrow by al Qaeda. Sadly, the prolonged American presence in Iraq actually brought the terrorist network’s jihadis there, as it was much easier for them to fight their "far enemy" in this more easily reachable theater of operations. Today, the American military is gone, while al Qaeda, after suffering sharp reverses, is back and making mischief once more.

Even the leading explanation for the tactical defeat suffered by al Qaeda in Iraq is subject to some fuzzy reasoning. The faith many have put in "the surge" having turned the tide needs to be questioned. The relatively small number of additional American trigger-pullers sent — some 20,000 — mattered far less than the change in operational concept. It was the outreach to indigenous Iraqis, who made up the majority of the insurgents, and their willingness to turn against the foreign fighters al Qaeda had sent, that made the true difference. What the U.S. military calls "influence operations" haven’t yet received their proper due in this campaign.

And by efforts to achieve influence, I am not referring to the hundreds of millions spent on propaganda — often in the form of planted, paid-for stories. No, influence grew instead from the presence of small groups of Americans living in and operating from local outposts in many places around Iraq. Propaganda proved counterproductive, but American soldiers and Marines, removed from massive operating bases and stationed where they could respond to trouble in minutes, impressed average Iraqis tremendously — and generated vast amounts of good intelligence, forging the bonds that influenced some 80,000 insurgents to switch sides.

It is a pity that, at his confirmation hearing, Chuck Hagel wasn’t ready to answer John McCain’s question about the surge. If there is one really positive lesson to draw from Iraq, it is that war is not simply a numbers game. Increasingly, military action is becoming just a backdrop to the larger "battle of the story" about the context and conduct of war. A deeper understanding of the interplay of force and influence is much needed, especially in this time of growing fiscal austerity.

But even a very useful insight of this sort is small beer, given the consequences of the determined pursuit of an illogical strategy to its logical end. In the case of Iraq, the whole premise of spreading democracy by violently overthrowing an authoritarian regime should have been questioned from the outset. In a country with a majority Shiite population, it is only logical to assume that the Shi’a would play a dominant role in a democratic Iraq. And these are the same Shi’a whom the United States incited to rebel against Saddam Hussein back in the spring of 1991 — then abandoned them to their bloody fate. Hundreds of thousands were killed back then. It should be expected that these Shi’a will lean more toward their co-religionists in Tehran than toward Washington — which has pretty much abandoned them once again.

Yet for all the clarity of this logical fallacy in the American democracy project, it has not stopped President Obama from helping to overthrow Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, or from calling for the ouster of Bashar al-Assad in Syria — even though the fall of the former and the uprising against the latter have given al Qaeda new "active fronts" (to use the jihadis’ own term) in which to operate. The very fact that our policy of regime change is aimed at the same rulers our principal enemy wishes to overthrow should give logical pause. So far, it hasn’t. But at least there are some limits to the American pursuit of folly; there is no call in Washington for overthrow of the regime in Riyadh. For this we should at least be thankful.

But let us not be complacent, for the power of illogic is great and resilient. Napoleon was able to exploit this power with his own "influence campaign" as, on his return from Egypt, in abject defeat, he was nonetheless embraced as a great national hero and savior. Perhaps the only way to inoculate ourselves against the virulent resurgence of illogic may be to take a long, hard look at the intervention in Iraq and what has flowed from it. So far, the tendency among senior military and civilian leaders has been to avert their gaze, what with the endgame in Afghanistan and the looming "pivot to the Pacific" forming important distractions. Still, our defense establishment is large, and our universities are full of curious scholars of strategic affairs. There are plenty enough qualified people both to pursue current initiatives and to take a deep, unflinching look at the debacle that began to unfold a decade ago, the ripples of which continue to plague our foreign policy.

John Arquilla earned his degrees in international relations from Rosary College (BA 1975) and Stanford University (MA 1989, PhD 1991). He has been teaching in the special operations program at the United States Naval Postgraduate School since 1993. He also serves as chairman of the Defense Analysis department.

Dr. Arquilla’s teaching interests revolve around the history of irregular warfare, terrorism, and the implications of the information age for society and security.

His books include: Dubious Battles: Aggression, Defeat and the International System (1992); From Troy to Entebbe: Special Operations in Ancient & Modern Times (1996), which was a featured alternate of the Military Book Club; In Athena’s Camp (1997); Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime and Militancy (2001), named a notable book of the year by the American Library Association; The Reagan Imprint: Ideas in American Foreign Policy from the Collapse of Communism to the War on Terror (2006); Worst Enemy: The Reluctant Transformation of the American Military (2008), which is about defense reform; Insurgents, Raiders, and Bandits: How Masters of Irregular Warfare Have Shaped Our World (2011); and Afghan Endgames: Strategy and Policy Choices for America’s Longest War (2012).

Dr. Arquilla is also the author of more than one hundred articles dealing with a wide range of topics in military and security affairs. His work has appeared in the leading academic journals and in general publications like The New York Times, Forbes, Foreign Policy Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Wired and The New Republic. He is best known for his concept of “netwar” (i.e., the distinct manner in which those organized into networks fight). His vision of “swarm tactics” was selected by The New York Times as one of the “big ideas” of 2001; and in recent years Foreign Policy Magazine has listed him among the world’s “top 100 thinkers.”

In terms of policy experience, Dr. Arquilla worked as a consultant to General Norman Schwarzkopf during Operation Desert Storm, as part of a group of RAND analysts assigned to him. During the Kosovo War, he assisted deputy secretary of defense John Hamre on a range of issues in international information strategy. Since the onset of the war on terror, Dr. Arquilla has focused on assisting special operations forces and other units on practical “field problems.” Most recently, he worked for the White House as a member of a small, nonpartisan team of outsiders asked to articulate new directions for American defense policy.

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